Rodney sisters started a school in Oregon in 1869

Oregon Episcopal School, founded with the help of the Rodney sisters of Lewes in 1869, is one of the oldest independent schools on the West Coast. BY DENNIS FORNEY
May 24, 2013

The sign at the entrance to the Oregon Episcopal School in Portland indicates the school was founded in 1869. That also happens to be the year that four Rodney sisters left their native Lewes, climbed a gangplank on a ship in New York City and set sail for Portland.

Coincidence? Not at all.

One of these sisters, Hannah, was married to the Rt. Rev. Benjamin Wistar Morris, who had recently been appointed Episcopal Missionary Bishop of Oregon and Washington. According to a 1990 article by Hazel Brittingham in the Peninsula Pacemaker, Hannah and her sisters traveled with the good bishop to his new post to help him realize his vision of establishing a school for girls in the territory. Oregon had just achieved statehood 10 years before in 1859.

It wasn’t a totally new undertaking for the sisters. Lydia Rodney for some years conducted a private school in what is now known as the historic Rodney House on Second Street in Lewes. That 18th century, cypress-clad structure is now home to the Cotton Company store, next to Touch of Italy.

“The departing Rodney generation carried with them not only Miss Lydia’s brass school bell, but a heritage rich in Delaware history and Lewes residency,” wrote Brittingham. “Their Rodney line included the illustrious Caesar Rodney [signer of the Declaration of Independence]; their grandfather - Daniel of Lewes - had served the state as Governor from 1814 to 1817. Dead since 1852, their mother, the former Mary Burton, was a member of the family of Gov. William Burton, 1859-1863.”

The sisters’ six-week journey to Oregon, long before a cross-country railroad existed, included a train trip across the Isthmus of Panama and then back up the Pacific coast. Inspired by the majesty of Mount St. Helens, long before the famous volcano blew its top in 1980, the new girls’ school started in Portland by Bishop Wistar and the Lewes sisters was named St. Helen’s Hall. Mary Rodney served as its first principal, Lydia as her assistant and Clementine taught music. Hannah presumably kept house for the bishop.

Though it has changed locations in the years since its founding, the school now known as Oregon Episcopal School is one of the oldest independent schools on the West Coast and the oldest Episcopal school west of the Rocky Mountains.

Brittingham’s article notes that the current school campus includes a dormitory named Rodney House. A bell hanging from a stiff crosspiece of Alaskan yellow cedar commemorates the historic achievements of Bishop Morris and the four Rodney sisters. No doubt the Lewes sisters would be proud to know their efforts have endured for more than 140 years. I’m just not sure how proud they would be that the school’s athletic teams are called the Aardvarks. Couldn’t they have come up with something a little more historic, like the Horseshoe Crabs?

Our bicycle adventure

Becky and I are finishing the first week of our cross-country bicycle journey. We’ve pedaled 177 miles so far. Today, May 19, is Day 6, and we just clipped off eight this morning riding into Monmouth, Ore., home of Western Oregon University. This is a rest day. Courtesy Inn. Figures this would be only the second day of sun we’ve had so far. Lots of rain and big trees.

I’m blogging every day with photographs. You can find the daily journal in the blog section of If you know something about Facebook you might also be able to find the Sea To Shining Sea blog posting there. I’m new to Facebook, so good luck. And be nice to all of our summer visitors. Happy Memorial Day weekend. God bless all those who sacrifice for our freedoms.

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